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Introduction to the Renaissance

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Painting on ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The Creation of Adam. Renaissance frescoes by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel . Vatican Palace Museums. Vatican City. Rome. Lazio . Italy.

Gonzalo Azumendi/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images

Summary of the Renaissance

The Renaissance was a cultural and scholarly movement which stressed the rediscovery and application of texts and thought from classical antiquity, occurring in Europe c. 1400 – c. 1600. The Renaissance can also refer to the period of European history spanning roughly the same dates.

What was the Renaissance?

There remains debate about what exactly constituted the Renaissance. Essentially, it was a cultural and intellectual movement, intimately tied to society and politics, of the late fourteenth to early seventeenth centuries, although it is commonly restricted to just the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is considered to have originated in Italy. Traditionally people have claimed it was stimulated, in part, by Petrarch, who had a passion for rediscovering lost manuscripts and a fierce belief in the civilizing power of ancient thought, and in part by conditions in Florence.

At its core, the Renaissance was a movement dedicated to the rediscovery and use of classical learning, that is to say knowledge and attitudes from the Ancient Greek and Roman eras. Renaissance literally means ‘rebirth’, and Renaissance thinkers believed the period between themselves and the fall of Rome, which they labelled the Middle Ages, had seen a decline in cultural achievement compared with the earlier eras. Participants intended, through the study of classical texts, textual criticism and classical techniques, to both reintroduce the heights of those ancient days and improve the situation of their contemporaries. Some of these classical texts survived only amongst Islamic scholars and were brought back into Europe at this time.

The Renaissance Age

“Renaissance” can also refer to the period, c. 1400 – c. 1600. “High Renaissance” generally refers to c. 1480 – c. 1520. The era was dynamic, with European explorers “finding” new continents, the transformation of trading methods and patterns, the decline of feudalism, scientific developments such as the Copernican system of the cosmos and the rise of gunpowder. Many of these changes were triggered, in part, by the Renaissance, such as classical mathematics stimulating new financial trading mechanisms, or new techniques from the east boosting ocean navigation. The printing press was also developed, allowing Renaissance texts to be disseminated widely.

Why was this Renaissance Different?

Classical culture had never totally vanished from Europe, and it experienced sporadic rebirths. There was the Carolingian Renaissance in the eighth to ninth centuries and a major one in the “Twelfth Century Renaissance”, which saw Greek science and philosophy returned to European consciousness and the development of a new way of thinking which mixed science and logic called Scholasticism. What was different in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was that this particular rebirth joined together both the elements of scholarly enquiry and cultural endeavour with social and political motivations to create a much broader movement.

Origins: The Society and Politics behind the Renaissance

Across the fourteenth century, and perhaps before, the old social and political structures of the medieval period broke down, allowing new concepts to rise. A new elite emerged, with new models of thought and ideas to justify themselves; what they found in classical antiquity was something to use both as a prop and a tool for their aggrandisement. Exiting elites matched them to keep pace, as did the Catholic Church. Italy, from which the Renaissance evolved, was a series of city states, each competing with the others for civic pride, trade and wealth. They were largely autonomous, with a high proportion of merchants and artisans thanks to the Mediterranean trade routes.

At the very top of Italian society, the rulers of the key courts in Italy were all “new men”, recently confirmed in their positions of power and with newly gained wealth, and they were keen to demonstrate both. There was also wealth and the desire to show it below them. The Black Death had killed millions in Europe and left the survivors with proportionally greater wealth, whether through fewer people inheriting more or simply from the increased wages they could demand. Italian society, and the results of the Black Death, allowed for much greater social mobility, a constant flow of people keen to demonstrate their wealth. Displaying wealth and using culture to reinforce your social and political was an important aspect of life in that period, and when artistic and scholarly movements turned back to the classical world at the start of the fifteenth century there were plenty of patrons ready to support them in these endeavours to make political points.

The importance of piety, as demonstrated through commissioning works of tribute, was also strong, and Christianity proved a heavy influence for thinkers trying to square Christian thought with that of “pagan” classical writers.

More on Causes of the Renaissance

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